Saturday 28 March 2015

The Authentic Wargame

I mentioned a week or two ago the idea of the authentic and the kitsch in art. Real art, I claimed (or at least, quoted Roger Scruton as claiming) represents reality to us. Kitsch invited sentimentality, the turn inwards to observe and admire our own emotions and enjoy ourselves as being civilised, sensitive people.

I also noted, in passing, that modern art, in its many forms, simply seems to set out to shock. In fact, some art bureaucrats often seem to think that something is art if the general public do not like it. It can then be sold at a vastly inflated price for someone to put on a gallery wall (no one in their right mind would actually want these things in their own living room, would they?). Shock, the public outcry garners attention, if nothing else.

Now, harking back to vaguely remembered bits of Gadamer, I think we could claim that, in some senses, wargaming is art, or at least has some features in common with some art forms. The art form in particular that I have in mind is theatre. Now, of course, there are clear differences. A play has a set script which, except in some more modern plays, the actors tend to follow. But there are some helpful resonances as well, I think.

Firstly, a play is repeated a number of times, both in its current production and in revivals, and also in different productions, with different casts, directors and so on. Furthermore, a play, as the instance of this particular performance, is unique. This set of actors, this room, this audience is specific to this one off event of a play. As with teaching, this version is a singular event.

Wargames, too, can and are played and played again. Again, each event is different. The wargamers might be different; they might swap sides and be informed by what happened last time, and so on. The rules might be known more or less well, the terrain set out slightly different. The details, which do actually matter in a game as well as a play, vary.

Now, the point to which I am painfully iterating is something like this. Some plays are done well, some poorly. Some are shut down by mobs or the secret police. Some mock the establishment and some the population, and so on. Good theatre, then, brings us face to face with reality, or at least a recognisable depiction thereof. In some sense, we could argue, a good wargame should do the same.

Consider a fairly simple case of a classic role playing game such as Runequest or D & D. Good and evil are fairly explicit in the rules. A character in D & D can be evil, good or neutrally aligned. In RQ chaos is everyone’s enemy and the Lunar Empire is suspicious because of its ambivalent attitude to it. Thus, most of the time, there is no moral question which arises. The baddies must be defeated. Perhaps the nearest theatrical equivalent would be a modern pantomime, where we can safely Boo the baddies because, well, they are baddies and because we know they will be defeated in the end.

At the other extreme there are some theatre productions which do simply set out to shock. I vaguely remember a controversial production, I think of ‘The Romans in Britain’ which featured a scene of homosexual rape. For its time this was outrageous and widely condemned. What it had to do with the plot or what the play was trying to say I am not sure (I’ve not seen it, nor can really be bothered to find out more about it), but the fact is the outraged a lot of people (who probably had not bothered to see it either; outrage is like that).

The wargaming equivalent of this is, well, what? Would a wargame of an uprising in a concentration camp do it, or of the Warsaw uprising? The Princess Diana demolition derby, where the players as photographers chase a car until it crashes (bonus points for pictures of the maimed occupants)? These are certainly tasteless, but would they produce the outrage?

I think what I am trying to get at is that an authentic wargame is one where we can see, or feel the emotion, the reality, reaching out towards us. If we did have a Warsaw Ghetto game, it would be only authentic is we could find in it the desperation of the fighters in launching such a desperate battle, and the destruction which befell the city. Anything else, perhaps, would be less authentic, less respectful to the original situation and battle.

Given the difficulty inherent in constructing wargames with even a slight degree of the real historical outcomes, are we therefore condemned to inauthentic wargames, ones with little or no contact with any real historical world? And if we are, are we not more comfortable with the idea that they do not correspond to any sort of reality? After all, a wargame which does confront us with reality would, in many cases, hardly be a recreation.

So, finally, what of wargaming the ultra-modern, the Taliban, IS or conflict in Ukraine? Are these merely shocking and tasteless, or are there deeper currents moving? Given the general inaction of politicians and widespread near to apathy of populations not directly involved, would a tasteless, provocative wargame of Kaderia, Donetsk or a border post in Sinai at least get people talking about it. Could a wargame, like art, hold up a mirror to the world and attempt to get us to stop ignoring it?

I think to suggest it would is, probably, yielding far too much to the idea of a wargame as in any sense powerful, politically or morally, whereas a play might be. I am as much against the idea of painting toy soldiers in the form of IS and wargaming with them as the next wargamer in the street.

But I do wonder. Could a wargame of the British NW Frontier of India, or Alexander’s problems in Bactria hold up a mirror to the times? Or, like science fiction, a non-historical wargame actually be ‘about’ today? But, maybe, I am starting to take the whole idea of wargaming way too seriously.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Performative Wargames

It is possibly because I have just read a book on speech-acts, but I am coming around to the view, slowly as befits a bear of very little brain, that most wargaming is performative. By this I mean that, in part, the words we say are both descriptive and determinative of what happens, but also the wargame as wargame is a performance.

I suppose the second item above comes from my reading of Gadamer. He considers, as I might have mentioned, art and the aesthetic. As with most considerations of art, ultimately he means pictures, but along the way he considers other art, including the plastic arts and plays.

A play is, when you think about it, an odd sort of thing. The actors have a script, which they follow (OK, some avant-guard plays might be improvisation, but let’s ignore them for the moment). However, the play, as presented, is much more than just the words in the script. Different actors might present different characters in different ways.  The script itself, while not obviously malleable, can be edited, cut down and, to some extent, reworked. The environment of the play, the scenery can be changed. For example, some Macbeths have got heavy duty medieval scenery. Some have been performed on an empty stage with just a crown hanging above it and black hangings around it.

The upshot of all of this is that even though the script is (relatively) fixed, the surroundings make a difference, as do the cast and their interactions with each other and the director, stage manager and scenery people, and so on. To say that there is ‘a’ play, as in a single, unalterable object of culture, is a mistake. There is a script as an object, and there are performances of it.

The point is that each performance of a play, even if the cast, director, scenery and editing of it are the same, is different. For one thing, the audience is different. As with teaching, you might be covering (or trying to cover) the same material in a class, but each time your audience is different. Even if they were the same, their location, immediate experience, reflections and so on would be difference. Even if the same audience went to the same play with the same cast again, they would have already seen the play and their reactions would, at least in part, be different.

A performance, then, is a single, unrepeatable act. Macbeth might die at each performance, but the manner of his arriving at that point is likely to be different, at least in the minds of the actors and the audience. These differences might be very minor or trivial, but they will exist. A performance cannot be repeated.

Now, consider a wargame of a historical battle. We have, if I have to labour the analogy, a cast list, which are the orders of battle of the different sides and armies present. We have some scenery, given in some sorts of stage directions, and we have a script of sorts, which describes how the battle went in its, for want of a better term, ‘real life’ performance.

So we settle down for a wargame, and various things happen during the performance of it. Perhaps the left wing which historically fought on runs away after the first move. Perhaps the rest of the army, which was a bit pathetic in the original, perform heroically and save the day. Maybe we arrive at a vaguely historical outcome, albeit by a different route. What, if anything, can we say about the performance?

Obviously, there are a few things. Firstly, we can consider the rule by which we have arrived at the outcome of the performance which we have. Perhaps the rules were inaccurate on some grounds. Well, in principle we could correct that and re-wargame, but this would lead to a different performance.

Secondly, we can analyse the distribution of luck. Some people, of course, are obsessed by rolling ones or sixes. They might believe, against all the evidence that the dice conspire against them. His is simply the usual function of the human mind. It is pattern seeking, and finds them even where we know they do not exist. As evidence, try listening to a detuned radio on headphones. Is there not someone singing in the background?

The point is, though, that the wargame is also a one off performance. You can refight the battle, but the outcome will, in some way, vary. Perhaps, having fought it once, you have learnt that masking off that portion of the other side’s army with skirmishers might be a better plan than ploughing into then with cataphracts. Even if you do not try a different plan, the die rolls are inevitably going to be different. Similarly, the set up might be subtly different; those two hills might be half a base closer together.

The thing is here that no two wargames are going to be the same, as no two performances of a play are. There are, in both activities, a wide range of variables to juggle with. Not all of these are, at least, within our conscious control. The audience and their reactions is beyond the control of playwright, cast or director. The dice rolls are (we hope) beyond the control of the wargamers. While both might have a script, subtle deviations from it (or, in wargaming, wholesale variations) can cause major differences in outcomes for the performance.

This, of course, reflects back to what I said a bit ago about history and horizons. Macbeth can be almost infinitely re-interpreted, ‘bought up to date’ by directors with a different horizon and view than Shakespeare. Macbeth can be presented as an oppressor, and man with a mission to be king, a dupe of forces beyond his control or simply as a flawed human put in impossible positions by others. But this depends on how the play is read.

And for wargaming? Do we wargame things which are appropriate to our own horizons? Is this what makes wargaming the Roman invasion of Britain acceptable, but wargaming current middle east crises tasteless?

Saturday 14 March 2015

Tasteful Wargaming

I have written extensively (well, extensively for me, anyway) about the ethics of wargaming. As it turns out, there is no particular deep seated ethical issue underlying wargaming per se. What we find acceptable in wargaming or not, or whether we simply treat the whole idea as ‘yuk’ is a distinctly personal thing. The whole issue turns on taste and, I suppose, on the possibility of giving and taking offence.

Now taste is a rather funny thing. In the first place, taste is personal, subjective. As someone (W. C. Fields, possibly) once said ‘don’t do to others what you might want them to do to you; your tastes may not be the same.’ Thus, for example, most people seem to be perfectly happy to wargame World war One or Two, even though the cruelty of the warfare is extreme. Similarly, most people do not seem to have a problem with, say, Vietnam, although some might draw the line at a game which entailed firing ballistic missiles at each other (there was indeed such a game).

As personal and subjective, then, it is hard to be at all prescriptive about our taste. It varies. So too does the threshold at which we deem something offensive. Some people think that a piece of sculpture consisting of a crucifix pickled in urine is offensive and some people think it is the ultimate in modern art. In fact, some people seem to think that the more offensive a piece is, the more it must be art, even though they might not want to actually hang it in their living room.

When it comes to wargaming, however, the issues are a bit more complex. What we represent, no matter how abstractly, is going to wander close to the average taste barrier. The question is surely, then, how we approach this barrier, and how do we make a particular instance of wargaming tasteful, or at least, capable of generating the least offence (I suppose it is a different question as to whether we should do this).

As an example, I saw on a blog recently someone (quite rightly) complaining about a new range of figures released which, from the picture, were about ten 28 mm figures sold under the name ‘ISIS Fighters’. This, they argued, was tasteless, and as I recall all the comments agreed. Someone noted, however, that if they had been marketed as’ Modern Middle-Eastern Irregulars’ that would have been acceptable. And I could not help but wonder why.

Now, speaking as someone who has not fought a wargame after 1715 for about two decades, I might not be the best person to answer the question, but I do think it is an interesting one. ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or Al-Qaeda, or whoever the terrorist monsters of the moment might badge themselves at the moment) are nothing if not tasteless (apart from anything else they might be). Beheading people and videoing it, or putting other human beings in a cage and setting fire to them are ideas that most pubescent role-playing gamers would recoil from, even in an extreme game situation. Of course, that is part of the point, but it does not remove the nastiness of these evil actions.

But does anyone really want to create a wargame based around these people as a recreation?

Now I might be guilty here of creating an ‘other’, some abstract person (an Islamist terrorist, in this case) to project all my fears and hatred onto. But I am not sure that this is the case here; I have no intention of buying the figures nor of wargaming the present atrocities in Syria, Iraq and Libya. I do think that the production of the figures has crossed a line of taste and offence, however.

I have recently listened to a series of three short talks by Roger Scruton (‘A Point of View’ on BBC Radio 4) where he has questioned the value of modern art. In fact, bits of the above were pinched from his talk. He argues (as I understand it) that the difference between art and a fake is that art means it, and a fake just tries to grab our emotions (and make a quick buck). Art is hard, kitsch is easy. Modern art, in its efforts to shock, goes beyond kitsch.

Now, the danger is with kitsch is that we think two things (Scruton quotes Milan Kundera): first, we think ‘isn’t it nice to watch children playing on the grass’. Second, we think ‘isn’t it nice to be watching ourselves thinking isn’t it nice to watch children playing on the grass’. Our aesthetic experience is turned in towards ourselves, our emotions, our subjectivity. Real art, Scruton argues, represents reality, objectivity to us.

I suspect that something similar is going on here. We can be offended, condemn as tasteless the production of ISIS figures. But the danger is that they become like a piece of offensive modern art. We start to enjoy being offended by them, or, possibly, we find that some part of the wargaming community enjoys giving the offence to everyone else, in the same way that Scruton accuses the art critics of assuming that real modern art is simply that which the public does not like.

In short, there is something about the human race that enjoys being offended. My grandmother, for example, was a rather straight laced lady whom I never heard swear. One Christmas she picked up ‘Puckoon’ by Spike Milligan. Half-way through the afternoon she announced to the gathered family “There are fourteen ‘buggers’ on this page!” She was rather enjoying the book, I think.

So perhaps we should be a little careful about gleefully condemning the figure line. I find it tasteless and offensive, as, so far as I can tell, most people do. My motives for doing so, however, seem to be subjective. There might be some people in the world who simply do not see a problem with using them in a wargame. But the question for both them and me has to be ‘why?’ There seems to be no simply answer to that, except that it is way beyond my own taste threshold.

Saturday 7 March 2015

Two Piles of Wargaming

Having, as I have, perused wargaming blogs and websites for a while, I can see that there are, usually two piles of things that wargamers suffer from, usually gladly.

The first pile of things is what the estimable Mrs P. refers to as ‘grey armies’. We have, I imagine, all got them. Ghostly ranks of unpainted toy soldiers crammed into cupboards, drawers and other nooks and crannies in our wargame dens, whatever form they make take. It seems to be a natural part of being a wargamer, this hording tendency. Perhaps we are concerned that our favourite figures will go out of production, although that seems unlikely. Perhaps we simply decide that a new period of wargaming is nigh, and buy figures for that, forgetting all the previous projects which have remained unfinished and now languish in a box somewhere. Perhaps we do not make any sort of conscious decision, but simply buy because we live is an acquisitive society.

In my case, of course, I Have boxes of unpainted figures. In part, it is because I am a very slow painter. Again, it is much easier to buy figures than to paint them. Hence grey armies accumulate. I dread moving house because then my indolence is exposed. I suspect that, to use an old adage, a wargamer’s eyes are bigger than his mouth; we always tend to bite off more than we can chew. A forty base wargame army sounds simple in principal, but in the actual lead is much bigger than we might have thought. And, of course, any army is infinitely expandable. I mean, I know the Romans only had one lot of camel mounted cavalry, but I have bought enough to mount the whole twenty something legions. Or maybe I just like camels.

On that subject, of course, there is the issue of personal preference. For my English Civil war armies (in whichever scale) I have vast quantities of artillery, so much so, in fact, that they would put Napoleon’s grand batteries to shame. They all have crews, limbers and, if deployed properly, would leave no room at all on the table for any other troop type. The fact is that ECW generals happily abandoned their guns when they needed to move a bit more quickly. Artillery was not very effective or efficient and had little influence on any battle that I can think of. But I like it, and I have bought the guns, so there.

To some extent this is just a factor in our hobby. I can do what I like. If I want to deploy a tableful of guns and call it the Covenanter army of 1644 I can. I am not hurting anyone by doing so. It would not be a practical army, or a good representation of the original, but aside from the damage done to historical repetition I am not harming anyone. I could also deploy Tiger tanks against the Roman legions. I am not sure what I could achieve by so doing, but I could.

The point is that while I do feel guilty about my grey army masses, I am not hurting anyone by having them, except, perhaps, the foundations of the house. Nevertheless, I suppose that the guilt spurs me on to do a bit more painting.

The other pile wargamers seem to encounter a lot is a pile of books. I was encouraged recently by a fellow blogger and wargamer who confessed that he was having a book buying pause, while he got his unread book pile back under the one hundred mark. And I thought I had a problem.

My ambition for this year is to get and keep my unread book pile under forty. That said, of course, my ambition last year was to get the said pile under thirty, something which is singularly failed to do. Add to this the fact that the said pile only in fact relates to the unread books on the top shelf of my bookcase. Other unread books lurk on other bookcases, and are strategically placed around the room and around the house to deflect attention from their quantity.

Now, of course, I intend to read them all. They were all acquired expressly to be read. Books are not just decoration, they are there to be used. As with toy soldiers, however, so with books. I suspect that I will never manage to conquer this pile, as I will probably never get around to painting every toy solider I possess. The human mind is restless and moves onto the next project before the present one is finished.

Put another way, we are all, at heart, flibbertigibbets.  A new range of soldiers is produced and we all cry ‘Ooh! Shiny’, spend our money on them and, a week or two later, cram them into a cupboard (unpainted) along with all the other projects, while we flit on to the next interest. So it is with books. We are happily reading something when we notice that another volume of interest has appeared, so we move on. The pile of unread and semi-unread books simply increases.

I am not entirely sure that this behaviour is unhealthy, but often, I think, we feel that it is. I have finished a number of armies, over the years, and I have spare soldiers. Is there a law which states that I have to paint them all? If not, why do I feel guilty about them? Do they represent failed hopes, dreams unrealised, or simply over consumption? I am not sure. But however much I might feel bad about them, they are not in fact hurting anyone.

As with toy soldiers, so with books. I am interested in the subjects. If I could just find a few more hours a day (about 24 would be fine) I would read them all. I intend to do so. I just do not, and buy another one, perhaps to cover over the original guilt.

But then, if I did not, perhaps the world economy would grind to halt, and that would probably be a bad thing.